On occasion of International Workers’ Day, 2020

May Day: History, Relevance and Perspective In The Cotemporary Times

Abhishek Kabra

Mani was once asked, “What if you do not come out alive?” He laughed at the question because it was for the first time when someone asked him the price he might have to pay, if he does not return alive from the manhole. Adaption to scavenging as his only task was tough, but being a ‘thoti’, this has always been hereditary. And after some time, emerging from the manhole with his body covered in sludge, waste and shit, he cleaned his face with his hand and his eyes became visible. Mani smiled and said, “This time too I have been lucky”. The similar is the story of thousands of manual scavengers that force themselves to enter manual sewers and septic tanks. Mani’s child was given the same task by the authorities and to make him accept this living, they said, “If you wear this safety suit, you will look like an astronaut”. This Mockery reminded me of Babasaheb Ambedkar when he told that the taste of anything can be changed but poison cannot be changed into a nectar.

In the drought affected Beed district of Maharashtra’s Marathwada region, cane cutting is a very integral part of the livelihood of the people. A woman in Vanjarwadi named Manda Ugale, speaks with gloom in her eyes, “You will hardly find women with wombs in these villages. These are villages of womb-less women. More than 50 per cent of the women have had hysterectomies, and it has become a norm in the villages to remove the uterus after having two or three children because cane cutting is a rigorous process and if the husband or wife takes a break for a day, the couple has to pay a fine of Rs 500 per day to the contractor for every break. Menstrual periods hinder work and attract fines.” Contractors say that during menstrual periods, women want a break for a day or two and work is halted. “We have a target to complete in a limited time frame and hence we don’t want women who would have periods during cane cutting,” said Dada Patil, a contractor. Most of the young girls, by the age of 25 had already undergone the surgery. 

The above examples have been given to show that unlike other countries, the Indian Working class asserts not just a class but a poisonous caste and gender domination which needs to be given equal emphasis.

Every year, on May Day a spectre comes to haunts the ruling class. The spectre of Karl Marx. He’s been coming since 1890, when the Second International chose   May 1 as the date for International Workers’ Day. Marx reminds us of our voices that the state has curbed by means, direct or economic. Marx reminds us of the rights curbed by the ruling class and the dire need of revolution. Marx in totality makes the bourgeoise uncomfortable.

Over the years, the world has tried its best to exorcise him. Hitler buried him under the Day of National Work. Khrushchev engulfed him in elaborate parades. The Catholic church disguised him as Joseph, the patron saint of workers. Franco outlawed him altogether. Some countries appeased him with a public holiday; others, like Britain and Ireland, preferred to confuse him with the first Monday of the month. India waived him away in the capitalist negotiations with the struggling mass where the option lies in between dignity or tags of being an Anti- National. But May Day will undoubtedly be the day of Marx who gave the Proletarians, not merely the direction but also the motivation to revolt by his iconic call in 1848- “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of All Countries, Unite!”

The happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day was first born in Australia. The workers there decided in 1856 to organize a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favour of the eight-hour working day. At first, the Australian workers intended this only for the year 1856. But this first celebration had such a strong effect on the proletarian masses of Australia, enlivening them and leading to new agitation, that it was decided to repeat the celebration every year.

In fact, what could have given the workers a greater courage and faith in their own strength than a mass work stoppage which they had decided themselves? Thus, the idea of a proletarian celebration was quickly accepted and, from Australia, began to spread to other countries until finally it had conquered the whole proletarian world.

During the time of Industrial Revolution, the capitalists were flourishing, but for the millions of workers who produced all this wealth, there were only two ends to opt- stark poverty or death! They were inhumanly treated and made to work for 16 to 18 and even 20 hours a day. In 1886 they decided that May 1 should be the day of universal work stoppage. On this day 200,000 workers left their work and demanded the eight-hour day in the Michigan Square of Chicago. The slogan was 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest and 8 hours for recreation.

On May 3, the Police attacked and killed six picketing workers at a creeper plant at Western Blue Island Avenues. On May 4, a bomb exploded at a protest gathering at the Hay-market square to condemn police brutality. Using this pretext, the police open fired again, killing four workers. And in the same year, August Spies, Adolph Fisher, George Engels and Albert Parsons, the Martyrs of the day were hanged on charges associated with the Hay-Market square’s incident which through the words of Spies was described as – “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

 The 2nd international called for a global mobilization on May 1, 1890 and this was the first May day celebration in the world. And in the years to follow till date, this day sees the working class of the world lead the struggle for peace, equality, democracy and labour rights.

In India, the second half of the nineteenth century witnesses the entry of modern Industry as well as modern Indian working class. But over the time, Indian working class faced same mode of exploitation that was faced by European working class during the industrialization such as low wages, long working hours, unhygienic and hazardous working conditions, child labour and absence of basic amenities. In initial years, 15-16 hours of continuous work was not uncommon at all and to worse, the similar was the regulation for women as well as children.

On October 31, 1920, All India Trade Union Congress was founded. Lala Lajpat Rai, the first President of AITUC was the first person who linked capitalism with imperialism and gave the statement, ‘Imperialism and militarism are the twin children of capitalism’. In 1923 at Chennai, India observed it first May Day Celebration under the aegis of Hindustan labour Kisan Party. And since then, India too has observed the day to break the shackles of exploitation.

The average wage of a tea worker in Assam is as low as Rupees 167 per day and to add to that the working environment breaks all the regulations as mentioned in the Factories Act,1948. Presently, when the country characterizes the complete shedding out of human rights of the migrant workers with DDT being sprayed over their bodies, May Day holds an utmost relevance in the country because this is day when the nation comes together in every village, every town, and organize mass rallies, not to mark that date as statist socialists and especially the Bolsheviks conceive it, but rather to gauge the measure of their strength.

As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands. And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honour of the bitter struggles and sufferings of the past.

Workers of the World Unite!

Abhishek Kabra, Department Of Mass Communication And Journalism, Tezpur University, Assam

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May 1, 2020

Abhishek Kabra

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